An online undergraduate degree built around individual learners' needs was launched by Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab this week.
The first cohort for the Ultraversity degree will be limited to 500 and accredited by APU. But universities in all regions, as well as the National Health Service University, are being asked to join in the scheme. The plan is to enrol up to 10,000 registrants.
Students taking the three-year degrees will stay in their current occupations. APU believes that for many there should be no charge except for minimum tuition fees.
Stephen Heppell, Ultralab director, told delegates at the Learning Spaces, Virtual Places conference in London: "This (degree) is for people for whom a traditional degree does not suit. You will study what you do, something that makes sense to you. So, a full-time mum might study everything from child development to early-years education and an ICT technician in school might study learning alongside technology."
The first year of the degree will be foundational, ensuring that students have all the necessary skills and support networks in place. The second year will focus on "action-based research". The final year will be preparation for an exhibition of the research findings.
Professor Heppell said the new degree would appeal to people whose circumstances had prevented them from going to university. The idea came out of Ultralab's Notschool.net project, an online learning environment for young people who did not thrive in traditional school structures, and the centre's prototype for the University for Industry online learning network.
"Notschool.net taught us that radical new approaches to online learning could take those whom the school system didn't fit and take them farther and faster than anyone had anticipated," Professor Heppell said.
"But it is clear from the Notschool sample that there are many talented people out there who are lost to the system. We believe that 60 to 70 per cent should have a chance to study at undergraduate level."
Professor Heppell added: "Ministers have confidence in a higher education system that is built around diverse institutions pursuing excellence. The Ultraversity initiative aims to contribute to that diversity."
He said the new learning path would not dilute traditional degrees: "This doesn't mean we should redesign universities, it means we should build alternatives that are held in equal esteem."
Ultraversity students will find support, ideas, help and a community of practice built by the many others also engaged in action research, rather than a mass of pre-designed "content", Professor Heppell said.